A love poem to poison oak and the great outdoors.

Green Means Stop: Lush poison oak guards much of back country’s charm.

I couldn’t hold a pen without the blisters between my fingers oozing, and I couldn’t walk down the stairs without feeling red, hot, swollen skin around my knees crinkle up on itself like a plump baby’s jiggly legs.

Bad poison oak makes it impossible to think of anything else. Dinner conversation routinely turns to worst-case cautionary tales and anti-itch remedies.

But that wasn’t the worst part. It was my slipping grasp of the space/time continuum. One day, I went to read through court documents for work. After reading the same thing over a half dozen times, I still couldn’t make sense of it, and thought I’d wasted an hour. Turns out, I’d wasted three.

I wasn’t sure if it was lack of sleep – despite a potent Benadryl, I’d wake up every night at about 3am from the itching, and I’d lay awake wanting nothing but a cool oatmeal bath before falling back to sleep – or the side effects of the steroids I was on, but this poison oak rash proved totally disruptive to my body and my psyche. I was still swollen all over after the prednisone pills were done, so I returned to the doctor.

“This rash is not under control,” she said definitively. It seemed to be taking over the thin-skinned parts of my body; my triceps, from the elbow to the armpit, and my inner thighs, from the knee to a distressingly high spot that kept creeping ever higher.

It was coursing through my bloodstream, meaning no amount of calamine or baking soda or strong soap could wash it off. But with an injection of prednisone, which basically shuts off the body’s immune system – the only way to calm an overactive allergic response – the redness finally started fading.

Still – even though I was covered in hot, scaly patches of skin for two weeks, and could find relief only for a few minutes at a time – I don’t hate poison oak, and not just because it provides a serviceable alibi to eschew bras and wear flowy pants and hippie skirts. In fact, I love the toxic plant – it can’t keep me out of the Ventana Wilderness, but it’s part of what keeps me coming back.

• • •

The woman who taught me to love nature has a relatively tame idea of how to experience wilderness: on well-groomed trails, on short walks with the dogs. Still, my mom is always vigilant about predator cats, wolves and bears.

The most dangerous animal I saw on the Carmel River hike that dosed me so with poison oak was a tick. When I called mom with the perfunctory news I’d survived another excursion into the wilderness, I inventoried the hazards: ticks, P.O., a falling Monterey pine crashing across the trail ahead in an explosion of dust and termite-made mulch.

“I’ve been worrying about all the wrong things,” she said.

Indeed, the Ventana Wilderness is an unforgiving place. And it’s not because of the big cats lurking. Of nature’s many perils, the big, fierce ones – the lions and bears my mom conjures as her worst fears – are actually the least threatening. It’s the more unassuming hazards that are worse: spider bites, snake bites, dehydration, high winds.

And it’s those smaller players that are the reason you can find loneliness in the Ventana. The ability to hike an entire day along the Carmel River’s clear, cool water, without passing a single hiker, due in no small part to overgrown toxic plants that make skin puff. Poison oak isn’t just a part of this wilderness – it helps ensure it remains wilderness.

A week after the steroids took effect, my hiking companion returned to the Ventana. While taking in the panoramic view on top of Cone Peak, he got stung by a wasp. On his penis.

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According to Mary K. Paul, a restoration specialist with Watsonville Wetlands Watch and formerly with State Parks, this is a karmic turn we all deserve.

“My whole thing about poison oak is how much of an impact we have on wilderness all the time in our everyday lives, and then how upset we get when we get harmed by wilderness,” she says.

The cats and snakes might lurk around us – but it’s a plant that evens the score.

“We’ve paved over all the dangers, so when things happen, we’re like, ‘It’s the most terrible thing in the world.’”

Paul has even cultivated P.O., since it’s a native plant. (She doesn’t react to it.) Birds eat the berries, small animals hide in the shrubby growth and pollinators like its star-shaped flowers. Woodrats (incidentally, my Chinese zodiac sign) build nests out of poison oak sticks.

You don’t have to free-climb the towering cliffs of Yosemite to find nature humbling; just risk brushing up against the shiny, oily leaves of poison oak.

• • •

I’ve never particularly liked Ansel Adams’ well-loved photographs of the Sierra Nevada. There’s a majesty in those images, an orderliness that conceals the chaos and mayhem that’s really buzzing in every anthill, beehive or shrub.

Memorable moments are found in rainbows, sunsets and shooting stars, of course. But the more poignant stuff comes from the moments when less glamorous workings of nature expose themselves: in Colorado high country, a freshly killed elk, still steaming and glistening red. Distant storms in the sky.

While those sights might get your adrenaline pumping, they don’t dominates your sensation for every movement of your waking (and sleeping) life. That’s poison oak’s power.

Once you’ve suffered the itching once, P.O. turns you into an observant naturalist.

“Other plants, you walk by and you don’t even know what they are,” Paul laments.

Imagine that: A shrub making us more observant and respectful of Mother Nature, a reminder that wilderness, including its bite and burn, humbles us – and in turn make us go looking for more. That constant adventure is another mighty gift the outdoors gives us, thanks largely to poison oak.

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